What are refined carbohydrates?
It is actually easier to define which carbohydrates are NOT refined, because the term "refined" is very confusing. ALL sugars and starches, EXCEPT those that come in the form of a natural whole food like a piece of fruit, a Lima bean, or a sweet potato, are considered refined carbohydrates. If you are looking at a sweet or starchy whole food that you could discover exactly as is in nature, you are looking at an UNrefined carbohydrate.
Refined carbohydrates are forms of sugars and starches that don't exist in nature. They do come from natural whole foods but they have been altered (processed) in some way to "refine" them. Processing methods include industrial extraction, concentration, purification, and enzymatic transformation. It's easy for most of us to identify sugars, because they taste sweet and usually come in the form of crystals, syrups, or powders. Refined starches such as refined grains, on the other hand, are a lot more confusing.
What are refined grains?
Truly whole grains are intact kernels (seeds) complete with their outer bran coating just as it is found in nature. Once the grain is broken into pieces by any kind of processing, it has been refined to some extent. The more finely a grain is ground, the tinier the particles. The tinier the particles, the more refined a grain is. The confusion about what constitutes a "refined" grain comes about because processing methods vary. Some (such as stone-grinding) produce large, coarse particles, whereas industrial refining produces ultra-fine powders with all of the fiber and most other nutrients stripped away. Coarse stone-ground grain meals and cracked kernel grains are among the least refined and soft, powdered grains (flours of all kinds and starches such as corn starch) are the most refined.
Particle size matters because the smaller the particles, the easier they are to digest. The easier they are to digest, the faster your blood sugar will rise after you eat them.
To make matters more confusing, there are some forms of grain processing that don't involve grinding at all. Examples include polishing, high-heat treatment, and extrusion puffing. All of these processes damage or remove the bran coating of grains, making the grains faster to cook and the starches inside easier to digest.
How do refined carbohydrates impact your health?
On my carbohydrates page I mention "the carbohydrate hypothesis of disease.” This is the idea that most diseases of civilization are caused by our so-called “Western” diet, and that the ingredient in the Western diet that is most dangerous is refined carbohydrate. I have written extensively on this site and on my Psychology Today blog about the role of refined carbohydrate on specific medical conditions, including:
- the powerful connection between refined carbohydrates and Alzheimer's Disease: "Avoiding Alzheimer's Disease Could Be Easier Than You Think,"
- how refined carbohydrates can lead to panic attacks, anxiety, and sleep problems: "Stabilize Your Mood with Food,"
- why sugar may be the culprit in ADHD: "Sugar and ADHD," and
- how refined carbohydrates set the stage for acne: "The Secret to Outsmarting Your Acne."
To learn more about the health risks associated with eating refined carbohydrates and added sugars, along with a helpful infographic listing simple ways to reduce your risk, please see my post "How to Diagnose, Prevent and Treat Insulin Resistance."
Okay, enough already, on with the lists!
Refined carbohydrate list
Refined and Simple Sugars (often called "added sugars")
- Table sugar/white sugar (aka sucrose; may be cane sugar or beet sugar)
- Confectioner's sugar (powdered white sugar)
- Honey (Even though honey exists in nature and isn't refined, it is a pure sugar that is difficult to obtain in significant quantities without special equipment or risk. Honey affects our health in exactly the same way that other sugars do.)
- Agave syrup
- Corn syrup and high-fructose corn syrup
- Brown sugar
- Maple syrup
- Brown rice syrup
- Glucose syrup
- Tapioca syrup
- Rice bran syrup
- Malt syrup
- Carob syrup
- Dextrose, dextran, dextrin, maltodextrin
- Fruit juice concentrates
All fruit juices
except lemon and lime juice. Juicing fruits eliminates the fiber (that fills you up) and leaves only the sugars and water. And most fruit juices require special equipment to produce in significant quantities.
All types of flour
including wheat, oat, legume (pea and bean), rice, and corn flours.100% stoneground, whole meal flours are less refined and not as unhealthy as other types of flours because they are not as finely ground and take longer to digest.
including instant hot cereals like instant oatmeal, white rice, polished rice, and instant rice
such as corn starch, potato starch, modified food starch—essentially any powdered ingredient with the word “starch” in it
Foods high in refined carbohydrate and added sugars
(not meant to be a complete list)
- All desserts except whole fruit
- Ice cream, sherbet, frozen yogurt, etc.
- Most breads
- Many crackers (100% stone-ground whole grain crackers are less refined)
- Chocolate (dark, milk and white). Baker's chocolate is unsweetened and is therefore an exception.
- Breaded or battered foods
- All types of dough (phyllo, pie crust, etc)
- Most cereals except for unsweetened, 100% whole grain cereals in which you can see the whole grains in their entirety with the naked eye (unsweetened muesli, rolled oats, or unsweetened puffed grain cereals are good examples)
- Most pastas, noodles and couscous
- Jello® (sugar-free varieties exist but it's much healthier to make your own with unsweetened gelatin and fresh fruit)
- Jellies, jams and preserves
- Pizza (because of the flour in the dough)
- Puddings and custards
- Corn chips
- Caramel corn and kettle corn
- Most granola bars, power bars, energy bars, etc (unless labelled sugar-free).
- Rice wrappers
- Tortillas (unless 100% stone-ground whole grain)
- Most rice cakes and corn cakes (unless labelled 100% whole grain)
- Panko crumbs
- Fried vegetable snacks like green beans and carrot chips (usually contain added dextrin, a sweet starch)
- Honey mustard
- Most barbecue sauces
- Check labels on salsa, tomato sauces, salad dressings and other jarred/canned sauces for sugar/sweeteners
- Sweetened yogurts and other sweetened dairy products
- Honey-roasted nuts
- Sweetened sodas
- Chocolate milk (and other sweetened milks)
- Condensed milk
- Hot cocoa
- Most milk substitutes (almond milk, soy milk, oat milk, etc) because they usually have sugar added--read label first
- Sweet wines and liqueurs
Foods low in refined carbs/added sugar
(not meant to be a complete list)
- Fresh/frozen meat, poultry, and seafood
- Fresh or frozen unsweetened fruits
- All vegetables
- Whole grains (whole grain rice, oats, barley, quinoa, corn, etc)
- Nuts and seeds of all types
- Unsweetened nut butters
- Unsweetened coconut
- 100% wholegrain rice cakes
- Whole legumes (beans, peas, lentils)
- Unsweetened salsa
- Vegetable tapenades
- Unsweetened pickles
- Soy products (like tofu and unsweetened or sugar-free soy milk)
- Unsweetened, all-natural dairy products (milk, plain yogurt, cheeses, butter, cream, half and half, sour cream, etc)
- 100% stone-ground wholegrain breads or crackers without sugar added
- Unsweetened tomato sauce and other unsweetened, starch-free sauces
- Unsweetened salad dressings (most fat-free dressings contain sugar—check labels). Low-sugar options include blue cheese, ranch, full-fat Italian, Greek, Caesar dressings.
- Herbs and spices
- Unsweetened vinegars (balsamic vinegar and certain other fruity vinegars can be very sweet—read label for carbohydrate content)
- Textured vegetable protein
- Unsweetened coffee, tea, sparkling water (either plain or with natural flavors or essences added), water
- Most red wines, dry white wines, all spirits (whiskey, gin, vodka, etc)
How much carbohydrate should you eat?
It depends on who you are. All of us should avoid refined carbohydrates and added sugars as much as we possibly can. But what about sugars and starches from whole foods, such as fruits, starchy vegetables, and whole grains? About half of all Americans have insulin resistance, which means that we are very sensitive to carbohydrate and should limit all sources of sugars and starches, not just the "bad" carbs. To learn more about which category you fall into, start by taking my quiz "How Carbohydrate-Sensitive Are You?"
Recommended cookbooks that eliminate refined carbs
21 Day Sugar Detox is written by holistic nutritionist Diane Sanfilippo. Every recipe in this fantastic cookbook is free of refined carbohydrates. Most are quite low in natural sugars and starches as well, making them suitable for low-carb diets. Diane provides accurate information, wise guidance, and delicious menu plans that allow for flexibility with respect to grains, legumes, dairy, and carbohydrate quantity.
Powerhouse husband and wife team Melissa and Dallas Hartwig have inspired countless people to eat real food. The Whole 30 is THE classic Paleo beginner’s guide and cookbook, and is chock full of moral support, education, and humor. Every recipe is free of refined carbohydrates, processed foods, grains, legumes, and dairy products. Their plan is designed to last for 30 days but I’d recommend adding a few zeroes to that number.
This brilliantly creative whole foods cookbook is the brainchild of husband and wife team Michelle Tam and Henry Fong, and is designed to be fun for the whole family. All recipes are free of refined carbohydrates, grains, legumes and processed foods, and most are dairy-free. Nom Nom Paleo is a favorite in my household and we use their recipes all the time. You simply MUST try the Slow Cooker Kalua Pig. Yum.